The Murder of Halland by Pia Juul
Translated by Martin Aitken
I didn’t want to wake Halland; he had to be up soon anyway. After going to the loo, I went back into the living room and collapsed on the sofa under a blanket. When I opened my eyes again, I knew a sound had woken me, but I had no idea what sound. An echo reverberated inside me. I sat up and ran my fingers through my hair the way they do in films. I pulled myself together again and clutched the blanket around my knees. Was I afraid? I don’t think so. That would have been psychic, insane almost. Thought I remember thinking that something wasn’t quite right. Had I merely heard the door closing behind Halland?
Bess was right to be worried about the noise; it was that of a bullet from a hunting rifle and it shot her partner Halland dead. His body lies in the square up from their house. The shooting occurs on the second page of this novel, and for just over the next hundred and fifty pages, we read about the effects of this awful event on Bess and those around her.
Although there is a murder to investigate and solve, this novel is not a conventional crime novel at all. The crime is secondary to the journey of discovery that Bess is forced to go on as she comes to terms with the loss of Halland, and the sides of him that she didn’t know. It’s a super character study, told through the eyes of Bess as she recounts what happens, although we must accept that her account is biased–she is probably unreliable as a narrator.
Bess has a troubled personal life. She had been married to Troels with whom she had a daughter Abby. When she left them for Halland, she was estranged from Abby who is now grown up, they only communicate through her mother who is typically critical of her daughter. She hadn’t married Halland either, but did love him despite his tendency to be possessive.
As she has to deal with his funeral and everyone else’s interest in Halland now he’s dead, she tries to close in on herself to keep him alive in her memory, but the world won’t let her. She discovers that Halland was in contact with the foster-daughter of his sister, Pernille, who is heavily pregnant. She’s shocked to find that Halland had rented Pernille’s spare room as an office and his mail was redirecting there. Pernille had asked Halland to be present at the birth of her baby. Naturally, Bess has dark thoughts, and it flits through her mind that she could be left with nothing too.
Bess finds it hard to let grief overwhelm her; she’s rather a merry widow type, flirting with her neighbour. She is pleased when Abby comes to visit, and we can sense that the estrangement is more on Bess’s side than Abby’s. Bess is complicated; there is much she doesn’t tell us, and it’s not always possible to read between the lines.
In the battle of Bess vs the world, Pia Juul has given us a fascinating portrait of a woman who could either lose it completely or find a new balance to her life. I won’t tell you which way the scales are tipping as the novel closes. There is some dark wit in this unusual and ably translated not-crime crime novel. I can really recommend it.
Source: Own copy. Peirene Press, 2012, flapped paperback, 170 pages. BUY at Blackwell’s via my affiliate link.